The art of storytelling

(Reading time: 4 - 8 minutes)

Educators have long known that the ancient art of storytelling is especially well-suited for student exploration. Storytelling is accessible to all ages and abilities. No special equipment beyond the imagination and the power of listening and speaking is needed to create artistic images. As a learning tool, storytelling can encourage students to explore their unique expressiveness and can heighten a student’s ability to communicate thoughts and feelings in an articulate, lucid manner. Storytelling remind children that their spoken words are powerful, that listening is important, and that clear communication between people is an art.

By Heather Forest (Reprinted with permission)

Why Storytelling?

Gaining Verbal Skills

Becoming verbally proficient can contribute to a student’s ability to resolve interpersonal conflict non-violently. Negotiation, discussion, and tact are peacemaking skills. Being able to lucidly express one’s thoughts and feelings is important for a child’s safety. Clear communication is the first step to being able to ask for help when it is needed.


Both telling a story and listening to a well-told tale encourages students to use their imaginations. Developing the imagination can empower students to consider new and inventive ideas. Developing the imagination can contribute to self-confidence and personal motivation as students envision themselves competent and able to accomplish their hopes and dreams.

Passing On Wisdom

Storytelling based on traditional folktales is a gentle way to guide young people toward constructive personal values by presenting imaginative situations in which the outcome of both wise and unwise actions and decisions can be seen.

The Voice as an Instrument

As an instrument, the human speaking voice produces a wide variety of pitches, offers complex tonality, and has percussive capacity. By subtly shifting the pitch or rhythm of words in a sentence, a storyteller can dramatically change the communication and convey multilevel nuances. For example, try saying, “I said I would go” as if you are surprised, then, as if you are defiant, then, as if you are confessing a crime. As you speak, listen to your voice and notice how the ‘music’ of the sentence changes. Say the same sentence five times and, each time, emphasize or rhythmically accent a different word. Listen to how the communication changes when the ‘music’ is altered.

The same instrument, the vocal chords, produces the sound of both speaking and singing. These two tiny muscles allow us to whisper, speak, sing, and scream. Some people insist that they can whisper, speak and scream, but can’t sing. It is true that we are not all opera singers, but it is not fair to deny anyone the pleasure of recognizing and appreciating all the tones and textures that can be produced by their own distinct voice.

If we redefine song as simply an intentional pattern of rhythm, pitch, dynamics and tonality, then spoken words can be described as having qualities similar to words that are sung. Singing, as we recognize it, is just one colour on the wide spectrum of what the natural voice can do.

Moving from Speech to Song

It is an interesting exploration to vocally play with the subtle edge between speech and song. To create, for example, a melody for a line of spoken text in a story, first, carefully listen to yourself express the narrow range of actual pitches made when the line is expressively spoken. Move those pitches toward a slightly different, ‘smoother’ tonality and use those ‘notes’ to create the melody. Listen carefully to the rhythm of a sentence until you could actually clap the pattern. Merging the suggested melody and rhythm and then pushing them into the tonality of song is a short leap. By taking a small pitch step into melody, one need not take an unsteady giant leap into an operatic voice to consider oneself ‘singing’ a passage. Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo said that he did not ‘make’ the sculpture but rather ‘liberated it’ from the stone.

Using Song in Story

When it serves the story, weave song in and out of spoken tales. Move the story along by singing the narration. A musical theme or sound that represents a particular character might be heard whenever that character enters the tale. A song could be used as an introduction to the story, or it could be embedded in the tale as a repeated refrain for young children to sing along with. The song could happen after the story, as a comment or a closing.


Listening is the key to creating a pleasing tonality in both speech and song. Our own ear can shape the sound of our instrument. Ironically, one of the most powerful elements of vocal music is silence. It is the silence between the sounds that creates rhythmic pattern and emotional suspense. It is the silence in the form of a pause that creates effective comic timing. Listen to the silence as well as the sound.

Taking Care of Your Instrument

The vocal chords produce the voice. These two, very small muscles at the base of the throat vibrate and create sound when controlled breath passes through them. There is only a tiny space between the two chords. The smallest irritation and swelling of the surface of the vocal chords can cause the sound produced to change. If the sound you hear is slightly hoarse or raspy, then the vocal chords are slightly swollen. If no sound can be produced, i.e. you have laryngitis, then the vocal chords are so swollen that they cannot vibrate and thus produce no sound. The cure for laryngitis is total voice rest. Silence for a few days is a small price to pay for protecting an instrument that must last a lifetime.

To improve your tone, listen to yourself as you speak and sing. Play with the pitches. Sing in the shower, in cars, and alone to the trees in the meadow. Exercise your vocal muscles. Have fun. Carefully observe the sounds you make to gain better control. The more delight you take in your own natural instrument and instinctive musicality, the more delight listeners will have in hearing you. •

Storytelling in the Classroom

Concepts and Activities


  • It is empowering for a child to be able to express his or her thoughts and feelings articulately through oral language.
  • The art of storytelling can be an enjoyable tool for practicing both listening skills and verbal expression.
  • Teachers can effectively model interesting, expressive language for students to emulate.
  • New vocabulary can be introduced and easily comprehended within a story’s context.
  • Diverse ways in which language is used can be depicted in folktales, including instructions, recipes, secrets, riddles, warnings, questions, and explanations.
  • People learn new skills when they are interested in the topic or when it is useful to them. Finding folktales to tell can stimulate reading and research interest.
  • Storytelling is a way to emphasize the uniqueness of each person’s imagination.
  • Imagination can generate language.
  • Comprehension, or the ability to make sense of a story’s plot, is facilitated by being able to mentally map the story’s main events.


  • Simplify the plot of a folktale into a story skeleton and then, using personal imagination, flesh it out as a retelling. Use vocabulary that is based on visualization of the tale.
  • As a preliminary step in learning a traditional folktale to retell, sequence the story as a map, a mural, an outline, a flow chart or any other form which summarizes the flow of events.
  • Make sense of a tale by sequencing the tale as a time line.
  • Read a picture book out loud to students whose eyes are closed. Discuss the pictures students saw in their imagination. Then compare and discuss the illustrator’s vision of the tale as the book’s pictures are shown.
  • Explore acting out the characters in the story to bring colour and variety into the face and voice.
  • Arrange to trade classes with another teacher for a few minutes to try the story out on new ears.
  • Explore spontaneous speech or improvisational language by making up oral poetry.
  • Ask the students to retell the tale in their own words with the prompt, “And then what happened next?” Have them act the story out as a play.
  • Improvisation: Retelling a small section of a printed tale as part of a chain story. Each person tells a bit of the story until it’s over.
  • Students could make a class book retelling a favourite folktale and send it to other classes.
  • Tell students personal tales recounting stories of your youth. •


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